New Study from GC Cultural Analytics Lab Is First to Analyze Global Growth of Image Sharing

November 28, 2017

A new study, Visual Earth, from researchers at the Graduate Center Cultural Analytics Lab is shining a light on how people around the world.

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New Study from Graduate Center, CUNY, Cultural Analytics Lab Is First to Analyze Global Growth of Image Sharing Around the World

Findings shed light on how photo sharing may ultimately shape a historical snapshot of the current era

NEW YORK, November 28, 2017 - Images have become the dominant form of social media content thanks to the growing use of smartphones and rise of media sharing sites. Now, a new study, Visual Earth, from researchers at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York's Cultural Analytics Lab is shining a light on how people around the world are expanding and curating the global photo-sharing gallery, possibly shaping a historical view of the current era. 

Graduate Center researchers analyzed 270 million geocoded images shared on Twitter between September 2011 (when imaging sharing was added to the platform) and June 2014 (when the study began) in order to get a clear snapshot of the growth of imaging sharing. They found an 11.8 percent average monthly increase in the number of images shared around the world during that period. They also noted a temporary doubling of image sharing between November 2013 and February 2014 -- the three months following Twitter's introduction of image display within tweets.

Researchers next took a detailed look at imaging sharing trends in 100 cities situated on six continents (Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America) to get a view of the demographic groups and regions that are the biggest contributors of shared images on Twitter. A diverse mix of cities was selected to achieve a representational sample of the global urban population. The data showed large differences in imaging sharing activity between cities based on the income, geography and age of the urban populations.
"We found that imaging sharing is growing much faster in cities in low-income countries than in cities in high-income countries," said lead researcher Agustin Indaco, a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Center's economics program. But even with that growth, cities in high-income countries continue to vastly outpace their low-income counterparts in terms of the number of images being shared."

The historical advantage suggests that higher-income cities will continue to have the biggest visual representation on social media.

Total number of images shared and income status of the 10 most-active cities (September 2011 - June 2014); click here to enlarge the graph.
Average monthly growth of image sharing by country income status (January 2012 - June 2014); click here to enlarge the graph.

The data also teased out the connection between image sharing growth and geography. The 10 cities with the fastest rate of image-sharing growth are located in low-income countries in Africa and South Asia. But the 10 cities that had the most images shared by June 2014 are in higher-income countries in Europe, the Americas, and East and Southeast Asia. These cities are London, Tokyo, Jakarta, Istanbul, Paris, Mexico City, Manila, Bangkok, Barcelona and Bogota.
While cities in these regions had the most images shared in the study period, researchers believe that different causes are at play in each case.
"In Western Europe and North America, where image sharing quickly took off after this feature was added to Twitter, we believe the trend has a lot to do with high incomes that have allowed for a great deal of smartphone ownership across all age groups," said Lev Manovich, director of the Cultural Analytics Lab and a computer science professor at the Graduate Center. "But in Southeast Asia and South America we tend to see cities with younger populations and growing economies -- two characteristics that explain the growing use of smartphones and rapid adoption of image sharing."

The researchers said they see mixed cultural implications in the current image sharing trends.
"The top 10 image-sharing cities are well split between high-income, middle-high income, and middle-low income countries, so it's not only wealthier countries and cultures dominating how the world is represented in social media," said Indaco. "But if image sharing continues at the same rates, cities in low-income countries will continue to be visually and culturally underrepresented in the social media universe."
In addition to Manovich and Indaco, the Visual Earth team includes Daniil Sergeev, founder of the graphic and Web design company Firma; Damon Crockett, a post-doctoral researcher at Yale University; and Mehrdad Yazdani, a research scientist at the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information.


About the Graduate Center, CUNY
The Graduate Center, CUNY, is the focal point for advanced teaching and research at The City University of New York (CUNY), the nation's largest urban public university. With over 35 doctoral and master's programs of the highest caliber, the Graduate Center fosters pioneering research and scholarship in the arts and sciences and prepares students for careers in universities and the private, nonprofit, and government sectors. The Graduate Center's commitment to research and scholarship for the public good is exemplified by its more than 30 centers, institutes, and initiatives, including its Advanced Science Research Center, a 200,000 square-foot facility in upper Manhattan, designed to promote collaboration among scientists in five areas of global research and innovation: nanoscience, photonics, structural biology, neuroscience, and environmental sciences.

The Graduate Center benefits from highly ambitious and diverse students and alumni - who in turn teach hundreds of thousands of undergraduates every year. Through its public programs, the Graduate Center enhances New York City's intellectual and cultural life.